Fergus Brown. UK. Bernabe M10 Cedar.

I went to Stafford Guitars a few days back and tried an number of their guitars in my price bracket, including the Bernabe M5 and M10. (Thanks to Adrian and Selina for the help!)

I played the Bernabe against a Contreras, a Carillo, a handmade English guitar by John Hall, and another Bernabe. They all have their own character. Each is beautifully made and eminently playable. The difference between the different guitars was most noticeable in the hearing (rather than the playing, though there were small differences here, of course). I like a particular type of sound. Also, my most recent guitars have been quite 'brisk (spruce/rosewood, spruce/sycamore), with lots of sweetness at the top but not enough at the bottom end, for my taste. I'm also fond of the 'old school' of sound, say, for example, Segovia rather than Bream - full, rich, some might say 'romantic'.

I had a sense of what I wanted in terms of quality and sound, feel and character (though really the latter comes only after a while in any relationship with a guitar). This made a big difference when it came to choosing the guitar I thought would best suit my ambition to develop and improve my playing from the poor standard I have reached over the years on my own. (I have now started lessons with a local teacher). Of the guitars I mentioned, the Carillo was probably the most 'punchy', with a marked brightness, say 'briskness' in the sound. The Contreras was well-rounded but to my ears stronger in the middle than at the top or bottom. The John Hall guitar was extremely good value for money and very tempting, being a luthier handmade guitar of good quality, well balanced, though possibly not quite as powerful as one or two of the others.

In the end, I left with a Bernabe M10. It met my criteria of sound quality (a genuine richness and resonance in the bass, clarity and sweetness at the top), of all, to my ears, the one with the best potential to enhance (and suit) my playing, and probably the best balanced, with more 'overall ability' than the others.

This was a very personal decision. I had the benefit of being able to hear several guitars of similar quality back-to-back and do a direct comparison. Most of all, though, I had the careful attention of Adrian, who responded to my attempts to explain what I wanted and give me a set of options which both tested and clarified my thinking, and Selina, who played each guitar so I could listen carefully. Do you know what sort of sound you are looking for? which performer or recording, to your personal taste, most reflects or inspires your playing and stylistic ambitions? What do you want from your guitar?

If you can answer these questions with honesty and clarity, then a good dealer like Stafford will be able to advise you, though from a distance they can only work on what you tell them. From my experience, I would say that you can trust the judgement of people who have dealt in classical guitars of quality over many years: they know their products and their music.

Note I have said very little about ability. Each change (to the next 'level' up) of guitar through the years has produced increased pleasure, more inspiration, more practice and more improvement. I had as much delight fifteen years ago when i bought a £350 guitar as I did last week when I bought a 'grown-up one which cost a lot more. Now I am struggling to get something more productive out of the old one, which is the one I use to take to lessons, but it doesn't hit the mark any more. In other words, buy what you can sensibly budget for, irrespective of 'status', and enjoy it till the day comes when you decide you want to step to the next level. Once you get to the quality of the guitars generally recommended here, all will be of at least good ‘student’ level, with the prices reflecting the musical qualities of each make or product.

Though there is no question that a visit in person to compare guitars is the ideal way to choose what suits you best, in the end a lot of the benefit comes from the ability Adrian has to match a player to an appropriate guitar. The more accurately you can describe what you want from your playing, the easier it is for him to find your match. If you have to order from a a distance rather than visit, I recommend an extended self-analysis, consideration of budget and ambitions, and then a call to Adrian: whichever choice you end up with, you won’t be disappointed, even if you can’t hear them for yourself before deciding.

Fergus Brown